Monday, 24 December 2012

Sunday Sermon: The Garden 1

Hello Everything. Thank you for another week in your body and in your service. Forgive us our mistakes and foibles, Everything, but only as we forgive the mistakes and foibles of our brothers and sisters, your people all. For we know that it is as we clothe others with judgement that we wear our own guilt. Humbly I ask that you bless our thoughts, our words, our relationships and our actions, that by them the universal, ecological republic of peace on Earth may come closer to being. Amen.
Hello everyone. Today I'm returning to Big History and times before developments of agriculture, husbandry and sedentism, in which many humans lived in "The Garden". I am proposing that the Garden is not a place necessarily but a particular pre-historical state of human society, mythopoeically remembered in various ancient myths. What I am not meaning by "The Garden" is "nature" or even "all pre-civilised human society", as for 99% of human experience there was no garden but rather continued struggle - dislocated and unpredictable - for survival.

The Garden really was, in its own context, seen as an ideal time. The myth is that it was a time when death and disease were defeated. Now I don't think this was true either by supernatural standards or by standards of modern society. People died and pathogens - or at least the distant ancestors of modern pathogens - must have existed. But in the context of pre-technological humans, for it to seem like death and disease had been defeated, to such an extent that people may observe, "Gee, we have defeated disease and death", it would merely have to be defeated to a large extent.

What I am suggesting is that the Garden was a time when death by violence from wild animals and other humans was reduced from 'really quite likely' (for a given person born) to 'not half as likely', and that through a relatively predictable and diverse diet along with a developed knowledge of the local pharmacopeia, disease was also vastly, albeit only relatively, minimised. On average, people who got through childbirth could expect to live a decently long life. That wasn't everyone's experience in antiquity, and it was appreciated and noted by the myth makers.

The observation need not be based on generational memory entirely as the myth makers would have knowledge of and be able to observe contemporary groups of humans who had reached this state, or approximated aspects of this state. The Greek story of a comparatively recent 'Arcadia' as well as the pastoral tradition of poetry in general appear to idealise approximations of this space-time which existed simultaneously with both peoples in tooth-and-claw mode and peoples in the toil of agricultural and sedentary life. So the myth makers were not completely guessing, or that's what I'm proposing as plausible, anyway.

The Garden is a state that requires a high level of intimacy with the environment, including with all its species and their habits, as well as with the local geography and long- term climatic likelihoods. According to the Biblical Garden all the creatures were named by Adam, which might be taken to mean they were all known intimately at this time. So the situation must have had to be relatively stable for an extended period of time, uninterrupted by major invasion or climatic upheaval. Also humans had "dominion over" all other creatures in the Garden. In modern terms we were on top of the food chain, with few predators and predating upon every conceivably useful species.

In the mythic garden we didn't have to work because all the fruits of nature were freely available - a mythic exaggeration again. We apparently didn't have to plant anything, but we did have to "dress it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). We were gardeners, and compared to either the uncertainty of constantly seeking our next meal, which was the experience of many prehistoric humans, or of the days of backbreaking agricultural work which was the lot of the early historical humans to come, it was pretty easy going. In context once again it would have seemed like you didn't have to work much for survival. And a lot of the work would have been healthy, fun and without danger. Good times. Golden times. Perhaps.

It was an era of a lot of free time for music, religion and story telling. It can not be said to be where religion, art, music, narratives and cultural creativity in general got going, but it was an explosive, defining era for all of these things. It was the cradle of all ideography, in fact.

There is a partial illusion in Garden societies, held by both outsiders and insiders, that there is no domination of nature in these societies, and that the people are in eternal harmony with the cycles of the ages. Context is important once again and when we compare these societies to any that came afterwards then the observation of natural harmony holds emphatically. But these societies cannot come about just by humans moving in and 'acting naturally'. They come about with many centuries of human engagement, human's intimate learning, knowledge and indeed totemic identity with all the creatures and places, deep generational knowledge of cycles of seasons and creatures and, in actual fact, total control. The landscape has, over time with innumerable micro-engagements, been moulded for the use of the people. They are gardeners.

It's what makes Garden societies so vulnerable. If the people are detached from the land the people die spiritually and the garden is overgrown and ruined. They are old-growth ecological systems, with all the implied complexity and productivity but also sensitivity to impact from outside.

Apart from such major impact, of invasion or climate change, the main limitation of such a state of humanity is the carrying capacity of the country - that is, population. There are many theories about human emergence into the historical era, but all of them have increasing population as part of the equation pressuring sedentism and innovation.

Placing the Garden in the Modern Archaeological Scheme

According to the Jewish calendar we are currently in the year 5773, denoting that many years after Adam and Eve. If this is supposed to be the age of the Earth then it is of course an absurdly small number, but in terms of the archaeology of the first real break from the Garden, as in the development of sedentary agricultural civilisation in Mesopotamia, it's not too bad. That would make the time of the Garden a period before 3761BC.

For when we go back to archaeology, we're told that the first Sumerian city states came about at about this time. Uncannily the Jewish date is only 39 years off Wikipedia's end of the Ubaid Period (6500-3800BC). It really isn't a bad moment from which to date the entire human journey, a journey from the Garden to another place we haven't quite found yet. It's also about the time writing, and hence history in the formal sense, begins.

But in terms of the Middle East, and hence the Garden culture referred to by the Eden myth, we are more likely going back to the Natufian and Harifian cultures, seven or eight thousand years earlier. An intimately managed estate-type landscape continued to exist from then throughout the entire Fertile Crescent for millennia after that, sometimes falling into disrepair before being revived or partially revived again but nevertheless existing alongside developing urban society and, even as agriculture and husbandry developed, remaining an important source of resource.

When I speak of a garden I mean millions of hectares over multiple landscapes. The people didn't go out 'searching for nuts', for example. They not only knew where the pistachios were, and exactly when the best harvest times were, but they had deep totemic relationships with the trees, and understandings of them and their needs. If they didn't transplant or seed young trees where they wanted them (they did eventually, obviously), they cleared them by fire and axe where they weren't wanted and protected them from competitors where they were, thus over centuries having a major impact on pistachio distribution and productivity. Every species was like this, as well as places like fishing holes, which were managed so the gardeners could basically come and collect the mature fish at the right time, and herds of animals which whilst not fenced were able to be manipulated by maintaining crop grass areas and utilising natural barriers. The entire landscape was like this, requiring constant (but relatively light) management, and meanwhile behaving like a reasonably predictable supermarket. Old growth human ecology.

Anyway, all I've really done above is outline a myth and attempt to render from it a plausible time in the human experience. I base most of the above not on archaeology or the Bible but on modern studies of totemic, aboriginal people in Australia in particular, but also in many parts of the more recent world. That I will get to in more detail next week.

For now I will conclude with some general thoughts about the garden icon. Firstly, it remains a human nostalgia, mythic or not, expressed in many ways and still sought by a portion of every generation. Arguably it is in a garden - a human landscape constructed of natural living components - that the human spirit is most at peace. It has been commented on by many people, but surely this is a cultural prejudice. 1788 Aboriginal people wouldn't feel that way would they? Wait 'till next week before being certain of your answer to the question.

Finally, and tragically, according to the myth we've been kicked out and there's no going back. We have a word for wanting to go back and that is 'romanticism', and romanticism, despite its capacity to seduce the nicest of people, has never led us anywhere very helpful. The journey, in the Jewish narrative at least, begins by leaving the Garden and it is irreversible. It is a better future we must now seek as a better past has fallen beyond our reach. At this stage, "Leaving the Garden" will be the third in this Garden Series.

Oh, and Merry Christmas everyone.

Everything, thank you for the access we have, through your prophets and scholars, through Logos, to our past. Help us to understand our human journey on Earth that we may grow and learn and one day find a new harmony. Help my readers Everything, that they may discern wisdom from dross in my words, and only seek You in their own integrity. So be it.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully and clearly presented, Hamish. The Rousseauian social contract, with pragmatism... and more to come.